Who was Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai? (Jewish Biography as History) Dr. Henry Abramson

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Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai (d. c. 85 ce) was one of the most influential figures in ancient Jewish history. Emerging from the ruins of the destroyed Temple, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai led the Jewish people through the dangerous first years after the devastation of the last remnants of their state by the Romans. A disciple of Hillel, he was of the “national-realist” school that favored tactical surrender to the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire. In his most famous act, he arranged to fake his own death in order to escape his enemies among the Zealots to negotiate a peace treaty with Vespasian, who would later become Emperor. “Give me Yavneh and its scholars,” asked Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, setting in place the foundation for the existence of Judaism after the Temple could no longer serve as the center of Jewish religious life. Part of the Jewish Biography as History series available at http://www.jewishhistorylectures.com.


The Mishnah: Creating a Portable Judaism HIS 155 Lecture 1.5

Alter Kacyzne, "Pinsk Jews Reading Mishnah," 1924. Source: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research via Wikimedia Commons.
Alter Kacyzne, “Pinsk Jews Reading Mishnah,” 1924. Source: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research via Wikimedia Commons.

Compiled by Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi in an exceptionally difficult time for the Jewish people, the Mishnah created the possibility of creating a “portable Judaism.” After the destruction of the Temple in 70 and the dramatic escalation of the diaspora, the Mishnah allowed Jews to define their religion within an intellectual and textual context, outside of the traditional Temple service.

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Excerpt from “The Jewish Diaspora: A Brief History”

Henry Abramson

5. The Mishnah

By the middle of the second century, Judaism and the Jewish people were in dire straits. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 and the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem, the religious and political center of the Jewish people had disappeared, with no serious second option available. The disastrous failure of the heroic Bar-Kokhba revolt of 132-136 and the punishing persecution under the Emperor Hadrian sapped the remaining will for political renaissance, and the scope of the diaspora extended dramatically as Jewish families sought more peaceful homes and livelihoods throughout the near east. All that remained were the small group of Rabbis centered primarily around the town of Tiberias in the Galilee, diligently teaching the Torah they had learned  orally from their masters, struggling to maintain the chain of tradition back to Sinai. The very survival of the Jewish people and their Torah was in doubt.

We must understand the existential crisis facing this embattled minority during those difficult years. The very center of Jewish identity, the Temple in Jerusalem, had been gone for three generations–elderly grandparents could only relate hazy childhood memories to their descendants, and even that weak understanding of the Temple was rapidly disappearing. Decades of discriminatory economic policies, specifically designed to weaken Jewish attachment to Jerusalem and the Torah, inexorably took their toll. Brutal, intrusive regulation banned the public study of Torah and central Jewish rituals such as circumcision. These and many other centrifugal factors drove more and more Jewish families out of the Land of Israel, seeking more peaceful economic climates where they could practice their faith unmolested or, for untold thousands of Jews, to abandon their religion altogether.  Demographic studies of the period show a dramatic decrease in the population of Jews during the first few centuries following the destruction of the Temple, and the reasons for the decline are obvious. The loss of the Temple was a far greater tragedy than the elimination of a national shrine. Losing represented the creation of a vacuum at the very heart of Jewish identity. How could the Jews survive such an elemental blow to their communal self-image?

The response came from Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, a visionary leader who saw the need for bold, dramatic measures to preserve the Jewish heritage and secure the Jewish future. According to Talmudic legend, he was born on the day Rabbi Akiva was martyred at the hands of the Romans, foretelling the great leadership role he would occupy in the struggling Jewish polity. Famously wealthy, the Talmud demonstrates his financial standing with an example that is quaint by modern-day standards but inspired wonder among the ancients: it is said that he was so wealthy that his household seved radishes year-round, regardless of season.

He held the title Nasi, or “Prince,” a designation that signified the last remnant of Jewish power ceded the Jews by the Roman authorities (his name is sometimes anglicized as “Judah the Prince”). The position was largely ceremonial, as the limited Jewish self-government was completely subordinated to Roman governing control, but he maximized the power of his office through carefully limiting the scope of his affairs and, especially, through cultivating strong relationships with important Romans. In particular, Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi had an extensive running theological dialogue with a mysterious “Antoninus.”  According to The Talmudic account of these exchanges, they shared a friendship from childhood, extending through Rabbi Yehuda’s appointment as Nasi, and Antoninus’ tenure as Emperor. The elevated philosophic tone of their debates suggests that Antoninus was none other than Marcus Aurelius, although he would have been much older than Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi, and some historians identify Rabbi Yehuda’s interlocutor as a later Emperor.

The essence of Rabbi Yehuda’s bold innovation was his recognition that Judaism had to transform itself to a portable religion if it was to survive the challenges of the second century. Unhooked from the Temple and it’s rituals, the Jews needed something that would preserve their identity in a rapidly expanding diaspora. This novel challenge had a partial precedent In the Exodus, when the Jews wandered the wilderness with a tent-like Tabernacle (mishkan) that was dismantled and reconstructed at each new encampment. Those early years of migration proved that the Jews were sufficiently resilient to withstand the physical and spiritual challenges of a peripatetic faith–could that strength be tapped once again, after centuries of sedentary existence? Moreover, could the Jews repeat this feat in the absence of both Temple and tabernacle?

Rabbi Yehuda’s genius, and his courage, lay in his decision to radically break from tradition by committing the Oral Torah to writing. Disregarding fierce opposition, he argued that the exigencies of the time demanded a bold measure, if Judaism was to survive the challenges of persecution, dispersal and assimilation. Specifically, he utilized the prestige of his office and his phenomenal intellect to collect all the oral traditions circulating among the Jewish people and commit them to writing in a single, massive document. Together with the biblical text (the first five Books of Moses, otherwise known as the Written Torah) this document would act as the spiritual, intellectual, and legal glue that held the Jewish people together for millennia.

The huge amount of data in this oral tradition had been overwhelming at the time, and several important sages such as Rabbi Meir had kept personal written copies of major teachings, although they were careful not to circulate them in deference to the ban on writing the Oral Torah. While Rabbi Yehuda respected the religious opposition to his innovation, he argued that that the ban would become irrelevant if it intimately caused the Jews to lose the teachings altogether (and with it, their very identity as a people). Taking the verse in Psalms as his guide, he maintained that it was a “time to act for God–they have destroyed Your Torah.”

Ultimately, the teachings were condensed into a text called the Mishnah,which is derived front the Hebrew word “to teach” and “to repeat.” Broken into six sections, the Mishnah covered the following topics:

Hebrew Title

English Translation

Main Topic

Zera’im Seeds Agricultural law

Appointed Times

Sabbath and Holidays
Nashim Women Marriage and Divprce
Nezikin Damages Civil and Criminal Law
Kodashim Holy Things Temple Rituals
Taharot Purifies  Ritual Purity

These six sections, abbreviated by the term Shas (shisha sidrei Mishnah) covered every legal aspect of Jewish life. The Talmud, which is discussed later, is essentially an extended commentary on the Mishnah. 

Rabbi Yehuda applied two basic principles to his editing work on the raw texts that formed the Mishnah. First, he practiced a studies conservatism, hesitant to discard texts even when they appeared deeply flawed. Fragmentary, misleading or redundant teachings were not included in the carefully crafted Mishnah, but they were nevertheless retained and ultimately preserved in other, less authoritative collections such as the baraitot and the tosefta. These rejected texts ultimately became very useful in the formulation  of the Talmud, as Rabbis used them as evidence in their heated arguments over the correct interpretation of the Mishnah.

Second, he intentionally preserved the oral character of these teachings by retaining variant opinions, even (or especially) when these voices contradicted accepted practice or ruling. Individual passages in the Mishnah typically express the opinion of two to four different opinions on a topic under discussion, without indicating which opinion is considered authoritative. In other words, the Mishnah is certainly not a law code, for if that were its main purpose, the only opinions presented would be the definitive, correct expressions of Jewish law. On the contrary–the Mishnah may appear to the novice student a jumble of opinions, without any sense of direction or purpose. Subjecting the Mishnah to the searching analysis of the Talmud, however, the finer subtleties of Rabbi Yehuda’s brilliant editing hand become obvious.

Ironically, it is the very ambiguities of the Mishnah that preserve the philosophical and pedagogic demands for orality.  Like many ancient texts, the Mishnah cannot be adequately learned without the guidance of a qualified teacher. More significantly, however, the Mishnah requires a study partner, or hevruta (Ashkenazic pronunciation: hevrusa, the “h” pronounced as a mild guttural).  The Mishnah alone is decidedly unhelpful to students working through the text on their own, since it filled with so many missing facts, logical dead ends, and dramatically inconclusive arguments. Like following a faint trail through the forest, A lone traveller can easily mistake slight variations in the terrain for the correct path, and ultimately end up very far from the intended destination. During the medieval period some important commentaries were penned by luminaries such as Maimonides, diminishing the opaque nature of the Mishnah, but Rabbi Yehudah’s remarkable achievement made a lasting imprint on the nature of Jewish learning, because the only way to effectively master the Mishnah was to process it, not merely read it. Processing meant the active engagement in the text, arguing interpretations with a hevruta, and consulting with a senior scholar to resolve lingering doubts. The Mishnah was not like a modern newspaper or novel that could be consumed in splendid isolation–by its very nature, it demanded a community of fellow learners to discover it together.

Thus the oral quality of the Oral Torah was largely preserved, and in fact deepened, because the scholarly energies that once went into faithful memorization of the text could now be expended in more sophisticated discussion of its contents. While praised for their intellectual toil, the unnamed sages who committed massive amounts of Rabbinic tradition to memory became more and more of a rarity. Those Rabbis, known as the tana’im or “teachers,” were replaced by a new type of scholar, the amora’im  or “speakers.”  The tana’im produced the texts that Rabbi Yehudah would assemble into the Mishnah, while the amora’im  would build on this to create the massive Talmud on the foundations of the Mishnah.  We will turn to the Talmud later in this work.

* * *

Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi exercised incredibly prescient and courageous leadership at a crucial turning point in Jewish history. The destruction of the Temple and the devastation of the population through dispersion, persecution and assimilation threatened to put an end to the millennial culture of Judaism. His brilliant conversion of the legal aspects of the Oral Torah into a written text artfully preserved the oral quality of the Rabbinic teachings, so carefully preserved over the centuries, and transformed the Jerusalem-centric religion into a portable faith that could (and would) exist I’m any climate. Accused of potentially destroying Judaism, his bold innovation actually preserved it.

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